Duncan Hallas

Britain’s oldest colony
A history of famine, brutality ... and heroism


Socialist Worker, No.137, 11 September 1969.
Downloaded from REDS – Die Roten.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The embattled workers of the Bogside and Belfast are following in the long tradition of struggle against imperialism and its reactionary Green and Orange Tory friends.

Ireland has a special lace in the story of capitalism in Britain. It was the first British colony – just ahead of Jamaica – and for more than three centuries the exploitation of the people of Ireland was a big source of income for the rulers of this country.

For practical purposes Ireland was conquered in the 17th century, though the country had been an English dependency in name from a much earlier period. The effect of the conquest was well described by a left-wing historian in the 1930s:

Ireland now became, what it has since of necessity remained, a source of cheap food and raw materials for England. At first cattle were reared, and by 1660 some 500,000 head were being exported annually to England.

When these exports were found to be causing a fall in agricultural prices and rents, an Act was passed in 1666 forbidding the export of cattle, meat or dairy products. This Act crippled the Irish cattle industry and when cattle began to be replaced by sheep a further Act forbade both the export of wool to any other country and the export of anything but the raw wool to England. Later still, the Irish cloth industry was deliberately destroyed when it became a dangerous competitor.

The most important Irish export however soon became human beings – cheap labour for the developing industries of Britain, and later, the USA.

A comparatively small group of English landowners got hold of most of the land in Ireland, leaving the mass of the Irish people as tenants with no security whatever. Merciless rack renting reduced the people to a state of poverty unknown in any other part of Europe. Every year thousands and tens of thousands were forced to emigrate by the threat of starvation.

That was before the Great Hunger, the famine of 1845-49 The famine was man made. There was food enough in Ireland to feed the population – if they had had the money to buy it.

At this time the country was still a major exporter of wheat – and wheat exports continued throughout the famine. The potato crop first failed in 1845.

In that year 515 people were officially recorded as dying of starvation and 3,250,000 quarters of wheat were exported. By 1847, when 21,770 deaths by starvation were recorded, wheat exports were still over 2 million quarters and even in 1848. when nearly 300,000 died of hunger 1,828,132 quarters of grain were sent out of Irish ports.

This was the decisive turning point in 19th century Irish history. On the eve of the famine the population was estimated at over six million – slightly greater than it is today. As a direct consequence of the famine over a million Irish men, women and children died, a quarter of a million emigrated to England and Scotland and over a million left for the USA.




Post-famine Ireland was a ruined country.

Except for the North East corner, where the linen Industry had survived and expanded and shipbuilding was soon to develop, the whole country became simply a vast reservoir of surplus labour, barely kept alive by subsistence agriculture and available when required by the expanding industries of Britain and North America.

Even the export of wheat soon ceased to be important as a result of the adoption of free trade by the British government. Russia and the USA replaced Ireland as the principal sources of wheat imports to Britain. Not until the 1950s was there any significant growth of industry outside the six counties.

The first modern revolutionary movement in Ireland, the United Irishmen, was founded in Belfast in 1791. The great French Revolution amused more popular enthusiasm in Ireland than perhaps in any other country in Europe.

At first the United Irishmen was an open political organisation agitating for universal suffrage but it was soon driven underground. the UI adopted the demand for a national convention and an Irish Republic on the French model.

This was high treason to the government of King George and the society began to prepare for an armed rising. For a time the United Irishmen succeeded in breaking down the hostility between Catholics and Protestants and combining both against the English ruling class and its Irish supporters.

In 1798 the United Irishmen were forced into a premature rising which was most savagely repressed.

This rising and its defeat had a big influence on the subsequent development of the national movement. The actual rebels had been mostly peasants and they had shown very little respect to the property rights of the small but influential minority of wealthy Irish.

This, together with the Jacobin ideas of Wolfe Tone and his friends, made a lasting impression. The Irish middle class learned its lesson. In future it was to fight on two fronts, against the English ascendancy but still more against the Irish people. Green Toryism was born.

From now on the British government could count on an ally in Ireland. An unreliable ally and one that would exploit every weakness to gain concessions for itself but an ally nonetheless.

The aim of the middle class was reform within the system, privilege for themselves. Their method, peaceful agitation directed at the British parliament, their instrument to control the peasants – 90 per cent of the people – the Roman Catholic Church.

The chief spokesman of the Irish middle class in the first half of the last century, Daniel O’Connell, the so-called “Liberator”, chose to fight on the issue of Catholic emancipation, that is the removal of the legal discrimination that existed against Catholics as such.

O’Connell was successful in terms of his own aims. Catholic emancipation was achieved. Middle-class Irish Catholics got a modest share of privilege, the peasants got the famine!

The long-term effects of O’Connellism were even more pernicious. Religious sectarianism had been declining in Ireland for a century. By reviving it, by concentrating on the religious issue, O’Connell and his followers helped to revive the waning sectarianism of the North East.




The “official” church-supported nationalist movement continued in the O’Connell tradition right down to 1914, when the nationalist parliamentary leader, John Redmond, called on Irishmen to enlist in the British Army to fight for “King and Country”.

There was another tradition, the tradition of 1898, carried forward by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Fenians and, in a different way, the Irish Land League. Men like John Mitchell and James Fintan Lalor kept alive the message of Wolfe Tone – “I appeal to that large and respectable class of the community – the men of no property”.

The political wing of Fenianism was unable, in spite of heroic efforts, to break the hold of middle-class nationalists and the church on the peasantry.

This lack of a massive popular base forced the Fenians into the blind alley of sporadic acts of terrorism, an experience and a method repeated by the IRA in the 1920s and 30s.

The agrarian counterpart of Fenianism, the Land League, was more successful. The League got mass peasant support for its tactics of resisting rent increases and evictions by means of the boycott.

It was also helped by the declining importance of Irish landownership as a source of income to the British ruling class and the very real fear of the British Liberals and Tories that peasant resistance could give the Fenians substantial popular support.

In the event successive British governments introduced legislation to give the peasants land bit by bit (with “adequate” compensation to the landowners) a course of action they would never have adopted but for the threat of revolution.

By the first decade of the present century it looked as though the Irish question could be solved by a compromise between the British ruling class and the Irish middle-class nationalists. “Home Rule”, which would have kept Ireland under effective Westminster control, whilst turning over the job of running the country to the “respectable” nationalists. was the order of the day.

A Home Rule Bill was actually introduced by the British Liberal Government just before the 1914-18 war. Two factors wrecked this unholy alliance, the Orange Tories who had been built up to create a “minority problem” in the interests of British ascendancy and, more important, the heroic sacrifice of the heirs of Fenianism and the pioneers of the revolutionary socialist movement in Ireland.

At Easter 1916, at the height of the world war, a few hundred armed men marched out to challenge the whole force of the British Empire. The men who seized the GPO in Dublin for the then non-existent Republic of Ireland were not supported by the great majority of working people in the city, let alone the country. The rising was soon crushed – though 22,000 British troops had to be employed – and most of the leaders executed.

Yet Connolly, Pearse and the others changed the course of Irish history. In spite of the lack of mass participation they had correctly judged the balance of forces.




It was one of those few moments when a handful of militants can decisively alter the course of events.

Lenin wrote soon afterwards: “Anyone who calls this a putsch is incapable of understanding what a real revolution is like.”

The rising and its aftermath completely discredited the parliamentary nationalists. It swung the majority of the Irish people behind the lower middle-class nationalist party Sinn Fein.

The Tan War followed and by 1920, both the British government and the majority of the Sinn Fein leadership were ready for a compromise – partition.

The economic basis of Northern Irish separation was the development of the shipbuilding and allied industries of Belfast. A “native” capitalist class, whose interests required the British and imperial markets, became the leading force in the area.

Due to the O’Connelllte character of the national movement, it was possible for this class to gain the solid support of practically the whole Protestant population for the archaic ideology of Orangism.

“Home rule means Rome rule”, “Remember the Boyne”, “No Surrender” and the rest of the irrelevant clap-trap became and remained the sum and substance of the political thinking of a high proportion of the Protestant working class in the North.

This made them clay in the hands of the Orange bosses who had, and have, close links with the British Tories. Carson and Smith, the Ulster Tory leaders were violently opposed to “Home Rule”, which would have left them a permanent minority. They were willing to carry their opposition to the point of civil war, to intrigue with the German government and to foment mutiny in the British army.

Their determined opposition, together with the increasing cost of holding down the South at a time when Ireland as a whole was less and less a source of income to British capitalism, produced partition. To make the Northern Irish statelet economically viable a substantial Catholic population had to be incorporated. So from the beginning Northern Ireland was a police state based on repression, gerrymandering and discrimination.

Today, when it is shaken to its foundations, we must be guided by the words of James Connolly:

The Irish question is a social question the whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself, in the last analysis, into a fight for the means of life, the sources of production in Ireland ...

In this movement the North arid South will clasp hands again, again will be demonstrated, as in ’98, that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united Socialist Democracy.


Last updated on 8.10.2002